Russian Studies Panel: “Building a Russian University”

On September 9, 2016, REEEC hosted a panel of faculty from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and an independent information technology consultant to discuss their experiences working in Russia for the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, or Skoltech. In their presentation entitled “Building a Russian University,” the panelists expressed their hopes for building a new higher education institution from the ground up, and the realities of bureaucracy and red tape. Edward Seidel (Director of NCSA, Founder Professor of Physics, and Professor of Astronomy at Illinois), Gabrielle Allen (NCSA Associate Director for Computational Outreach and Education Programs, and Professor of Astronomy at Illinois), and Dan Updegrove (consultant on IT, and financial strategy, planning, and management in higher education) each presented their observations and conclusions about working at Skoltech. Their initial vision of Skoltech being an emblem of a “21st Century in the Making: Accelerating Innovation” turned out to be more complicated.

Entrance to Skolkovo

Entrance to Skolkovo (source)

Prof. Seidel outlined the motivation for Skoltech as a world-class university on the western edge of Moscow, which would be built out of interdisciplinary units, and modeled after Silicon Valley and MIT. In 2010, former President Dmitri Medvedev, who wished for more innovation and value in Russian universities, announced an ambitious plan for Skoltech to bring outstanding international students, faculty, and corporations. Skoltech was founded on October 25, 2011, as a private independent university with MIT as its primary partner. It would be a uniquely Russian institution in an international context with 200 faculty (at least 60% of whom would be international) and only graduate students. The focus would be on science, engineering, and technology. By design, it would be interdisciplinary – no departments, but 15 centers organized around complex problems. It would emphasize strong programs in technological innovation and entrepreneurship. Seidel claimed that the vision and plan for Skoltech was “fantastic.” Skolkovo itself would be a “smart city” and a technological park that would attract many companies, all with the funds and branding from MIT.

Artist rendering of Skolovo

Artist rendering of Skolovo (s0urce)

However, Seidel noted that the plan for Skoltech was idealistic and somewhat unrealistic. Skolkovo was not accessible by metro (it was 45 minutes by car from the Kremlin), and it was very isolated with no restaurants or stores on campus. Collaboration among faculty was difficult to achieve when they could not casually meet at a nearby cafe. Moreover, faculty did not have complete control over how they could spend their research grants. They could not authorize any expenditures, and funds were difficult to access. Although he was the senior vice president for research and innovation at Skolkovo, Seidel could not authorize any expenditures from the$225 million annual fund for research. Though the idea of no administrators seemed like a good idea when building a university, in reality, they are crucial to building an organization. Without a campus, there were no equipment or facilities. A faculty culture couldn’t be built without faculty who had the freedom to do their work and a collaborative, supportive environment for them to work with each other. To Seidel, it seemed that Russia did not really want the cultural change that they sought. The idea of building a university in the 21st century from scratch and developing it around technology captured the imagination and enthusiasm of Seidel and others, but the reality was fraught with practical, logistical, bureaucratic, and communication challenges. All of the panelists noted the difficulty in creating a faculty and academic culture that was productive and supported.

Following Prof. Seidel’s presentation, Prof. Allen discussed her experience at Skoltech helping to build programming and assist in recruitment. In 2013, she was the chief information officer (CIO) and experienced difficulty trying to recruit a successful international faculty while working within a very different academic culture inscribed within Russian bureaucracy. While at Skoltech, Prof. Allen realized that tenure in Russia means something completely different than tenure in the U.S. Without a solid infrastructure, all policies were developed from scratch, and it was difficult to start or move research. Everyone was learning on the job. Similar to Prof. Seidel, Prof. Allen noted how small details mattered, such as getting home from work when the campus was so isolated.

The final presenter, Dan Updegrove, discussed the challenges of building the infrastructure requisite to support the ambitious aims of the Skoltech project. The architectural designs of the university certainly conveyed a sense of cutting edge technology, but bringing the space into being that will support creative development may be very different on the ground. He used a comparison with MIT, noting that the current Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is architecturally intriguing, but the older buildings had proved to be supportive of a collaborative and innovative environment because they were flexible – they allowed researchers to tear down walls and readjust space as their developing projects necessitated.

Both in their presentations and in the lively discussion that followed, Prof. Seidel, Prof. Allen, and Dan Updegrove reflected on what they enjoyed and what they found challenging about their time at Skoltech. They appreciated their experience in Russia, but also admitted they were glad to be back in the U.S. Although they acknowledged some of Skoltech’s problems, they were hopeful that the university would thrive.

Stephanie Chung is a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.

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